Q&A with E. Nadelmann: A Kinder, Drug Policy!

Q&A with E. Nadelmann: A Kinder, Drug Policy!
Posted by FoM on March 01, 1999 at 07:20:04 PT

Q: In terms of damage to society, what's the most dangerous drug in America?A: Oh, man. ... I guess it's got to be alcohol. Alcohol is a drug that can be healthy for people who consume it in moderation. But clearly, consumed the wrong ways or in immoderation, it's associated with 100,000 to 200,000 premature deaths, whether it's violence or auto accidents or long-term cirrhosis and things like that. 
It's also the drug that's most associated with violent crime in America, as well as arson. And it's the one that's most associated with domestic abuse. You can't directly blame alcohol for all this stuff. Obviously, human beings have the ultimate responsibility. But in terms of which drug is most associated with violence, alcohol has to be it.Q: Why should drugs that are illegal now be decriminalized or legalized? And should they all be?A: I don't think they should all be. But I also think the debate over legalization is useful in part and a distraction in part.I actually think the more important debate that has to happen right now is over what our bottom line is. My own basic perspective is that the most valuable area to move toward is the area of "harm reduction." What harm reduction is about is focusing on the reduction of death, disease, crime and sufferings as the ultimate objectives of our drug policy.Q: And this is harm reduction in terms of doing the least harm to society?A: If you take a look at my Foreign Affairs piece [January/February 1998], I show how in the Dole-Clinton debate Dole said the criteria for success or failure in drug policy is how many people broke the drug law last year. That's not an important criteria. Far more important is did policy X or policy Y result in a reduction of death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drug abuse and our drug control policies? It seems to me that there's a potential for a fairly broad consensus to coalesce around that basic bottom line. Once one has a consensus around the harm-reduction bottom line, then a lot of interesting policy options flow from that, some of which involve decriminalization, some of which involve controlled legalization, some of which involve continued prohibition, but in a modified form.All of which suggest that notions of common sense, science, public health and human rights should predominate in our drug policy, rather than the fear, ignorance, prejudice and profit that seem to drive it today.Q: What is the worst aspect of America's drug policy? A: Among my colleagues and allies, there's tremendous disagreement about what's most wrong with drug prohibition, and a huge diversity of opinion about what should come in its place. But almost all agree that the War on Drugs, and the underlying punitive prohibitionist system of control, is a fundamental evil in our society. One that's generating more harm than good. One that's generating more harm than drug abuse itself.Q: Have you ever used marijuana?A: Yeah.Q: Have you ever used other drugs?A: Yeah. You have to understand that I was born in 1957. I went to college at a time when a substantial majority of my friends and peers were also using marijuana and experimenting with other substances. One always has to be wary of generalizing from one's own experiences to how other people experience it. People respond to drugs in incredibly different and variegated and idiosyncratic ways. But I think one can also make an argument that in understanding drug use and drug addiction and making recommendations about drug policy, it's certainly no handicap, and more likely an advantage, to have had some experience with these substances.Q: Would you want your adult son to use heroin recreationally? A: No.Q: Crack?A: No.Q: Marijuana?A: Well . . . (sigh). You know, it's always a matter of choices. Do I believe that we're better off if nobody ever uses psycho-active substances? I don't know if that's right. For me, the really important issue is not, "Do you or don't you?" but "If you do, do you do so safely and responsibly?" I think that's the really important question. One of the problems we've had with drug education in America is we've lost sight of that basic issue. We just sort of stick "Just Say No - N-O" right up there and we have no fall-back strategy. Instead of a "Just Say Know - K-N-O-W" fall-back strategy to deal with all the kids who are experimenting.We live in a world in which the stats show that 80 percent of high school seniors have tried alcohol and 60 percent have tried cigarettes and almost 50 percent have tried marijuana by the time they graduate high school. Yet federal law prohibits teaching anything other than "Just Say No" in the high schools, and that's ludicrous. So, I may wish this or that for the people I love and the people I care about, but the thing that's most important for me is that I wish that they don't end up getting in trouble with drugs or with the law.Q: If you could change one aspect of drug policy overnight, what would it be?A: I think the core element would be to shift the definition of the objective and the criteria by which we evaluate success or failure. It goes back to where I started with harm reduction. If we shifted the objective and shifted the criteria, a whole range of alternative policy recommendations would flow from that. That's why it's hard to say that marijuana decriminalization, or needle exchange, or heroin maintenance, or the expansion of methadone, or pulling back drug forfeiture, or pulling back mandatory minimum prison sentences - all the things which we're working on - is more important than the other. They're all elements of sensible policy.Q: Do you think America will join Spain, Italy and the Netherlands in decriminalizing all or some drugs?A: Well, none of them are decriminalizing all drugs. What you see happening in Europe and Australia and other parts of the world is a movement towards harm reduction in respect to illicit drugs, and legal drugs for that matter, and some elements of decriminalization. . . . But to directly answer your question: I am optimistic that the United States is going to move in the direction of harm reduction and some aspects of decriminalization. Maybe I'm just an optimist, but I do believe that common sense, science, public health will ultimately win the day.Nadelmann, 41, is director of the Lindesmith Center, a drug policy research institute in New York that focuses on broadening the debate on drug policy issues.By Bill Steigerwald, Post-Gazette Staff Writer 
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